By Ed Meyer
From the moment I heard his answer, I suspected that Freddie Kitchens, the new head coach of the Browns, was on his way toward a breakthrough with the team’s hierarchy.
It was two months after the Hue Jackson era ended, and Kitchens was holding his weekly media session as offensive coordinator, with Christmas only days away.
There still had not been an explanation of whose idea it was to promote Kitchens, who had been the running backs coach, to a position in which he would become the closest link to the most important player on the team, rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield.
When someone finally asked who it was who made that decision, Kitchens had an answer, in his easy Southern drawl, that gave me a good feeling about him.
“Mister Jimmy and John. They did,” he said.
He was referring to Browns owner Jimmy Haslam and General Manager John Dorsey, and there was no hesitation. It told me they were comfortable with him in his new, magnified role, and he, with just the right touch of downhome hospitality, was comfortable with them.
It also brought to mind one of my favorite NFL coaches ever – Oail Andrew “Bum” Phillips. He liked to say: “Just call me Bum.”
Bum, a native Texan, said plenty of other things that endeared you to him.
“There’s two kinds of coaches. Them that’s fired,” he said, “and them that’s gonna be fired.”
Then there was this gem on Don Shula’s enviable coaching ability: “He can take his’n and beat your’n, and take your’n and beat his’n.”
Or this gentleman’s axiom: “Mama always said that if it can’t rain on you, you’re indoors.”
It was Bum’s way of explaining why he never wore his trademark, 10-gallon hat at the old Astrodome, or any other place that had a roof over his head.
I loved the guy, and it turned out that he was one hell of a coach, too.
As head coach and general manager of the Houston Oilers from 1975 through 1980 -- think about that -- Bum became the winningest coach in team history with a 59-38 record and two straight appearances in the AFC Championship Game – both crushing losses to the Steelers.
Those defeats gave birth to another Bum-ism: “The road to the Super Bowl runs through Pittsburgh.”
Note, Cleveland Browns.
After the Oilers lost again to the Oakland Raiders in the 1980 wild card playoffs, Bum got himself fired, then went on to become head coach of the Saints (1981 through the 12th game of the 1985 season).
The Oilers were 4-8 in his last year, Bum resigned, and was replaced as head coach by his defensive coordinator son, Wade Phillips, still one of the top defensive minds in the game.
God apparently liked ol’ Bum a whole lot as a coach. He died at his ranch in Goliad, Texas, in 2013, at the age of 90. Wouldn’t we all sign up for that?
I still smile whenever I think about all the times that “we reporters” talked to him in his pre-game conference calls as Oilers coach.
Bum once said after a particularly tough loss: “The harder we played, the behinder we got.”
The Bum-Kitchens comparisons are valid, because of the all-important ability to communicate, without the air of superiority, which inspires trust. Some coaches never get it.
Kitchens gets it.
Hue Jackson never got it, and that failure was confirmed when Haslam said “internal discord” was what ultimately cost him his job.
There was no need to say more, but there was much more to say about Kitchens.
He likes Cleveland, and Cleveland has returned the favor. He already has grasped that concept by his favorite choice of game-day duds – his orange, Cleveland Browns Orange, Dawg Pound sweatshirt.
Kitchens’ affinity for the Dawg Pound, pretty much a Bum-ism, goes like this:
“Actually, I know I’m from Alabama,” Kitchens said before the season finale in Baltimore, “but I loved the Dawg Pound ever since back in the mid-‘80s when Bernie was playing and things like that and – I do not mean to bring this up – but when the Broncos and all came in town and playoff games and stuff. I really loved the Dawg Pound, but I like the sweatshirt.”
He likes it, he explained, because his two daughters like it.
It’s no 10-gallon hat, but it gets the message across.
And Kitchens’ message clearly got through to Mayfield, the must-have franchise quarterback that, for virtually all of the past 20 years, was like the search for the Holy Grail to the Browns' brain trust and all the coaches who failed here.
Kitchens isn’t in this position, of course, solely because of his likeable personality.
As a three-year starter at quarterback for his beloved Alabama Crimson Tide under another danged good coach, Gene Stallings, Kitchens scored the biggest with management, I think, on how he shaped the offense.
“I think Freddie Kitchens took the input of the players, of what they felt they could do best, as opposed to saying: ‘Here’s my offense. I want you to run it,’ That,” Browns radio analyst Doug Dieken told me, “is always one of the mistakes that you run into a lot.
“All of a sudden, they went to a quicker passing game, okay, and all of a sudden, the quarterback’s not getting hit every freaking play. Then they got rid of Carlos Hyde and put Nick Chubb in there.
“Now all of a sudden, they’ve got a running game that’s not two yards and a cloud of dust. It’s 60 yards sometimes, and it’s something that’s got to be respected by the defense.”
I don’t know how many NFL insiders could have said they saw all of this coming when Kitchens was handling the running backs. I know that I didn’t.
His ascent to the head coaching job, Browns radio voice Jim Donovan said this week, was nothing short of “meteoric.”
In a game that demands results, Kitchens transformed Mayfield’s performance in virtually every respect in just half of a season. The most important stats being:
- Sacks. Mayfield went down 20 times in the first half of the year, with a mediocre quarterback rating of 78.9, compared to only five sacks in the second half, with a stunning QB rating of 106.2
- Touchdown passes. Mayfield went from eight in the first half, to 19 in the second half to set the all-time NFL rookie record with 27 TD passes for the season.
- Wins. From the 2-5-1 temblor, when it looked like Mayfield’s rookie season was nearing destruction, to 5-3 in the second half when the Browns were in playoff contention almost to the end.
Mayfield should now be favored to become the NFL’s Rookie of the Year.
Which reminds me of another Bum-ism about a pretty danged good player that he had in Houston, Earl Campbell, the Tyler Rose.
“I don’t know if he’s in a class by himself,” Bum once said, “but I do know that when that class gets together, it sure don’t take long to call the roll.”
[Editor's note: Most of the Bum Phillips quotes came from my personal interaction with him as an NFL beat reporter (1975-1995). Some were from authoritative Wikipedia links.]